National Historic Preservation Trust’s "2009 11 Most Endangered List" Includes Galveston’s Cast-Iron Architecture

This year marks the 22nd annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Since 1988, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has used this list as a powerful alarm to raise awareness of the serious threats facing the nation’s greatest treasures. It has become one of the most effective tools in the fight to save the country’s irreplaceable architectural, cultural and natural heritage. In the days leading up to and during the National Preservation Trust’s Nashville Conference, Nashville Past And Present will highlight the historic buildings, structures and places on this years most endangered list.

The late-19th-century Greek Revival and Italianate buildings with elaborate cast-iron storefronts in Galveston’s 12-block Strand/Mechanic National Historic Landmark District constitute one of the largest collections of historic commercial buildings in the country. They are reminders of a time when this small island was a center of finance and commerce, with a bustling commercial district nicknamed “The Wall Street of the Southwest.” Although the buildings have weathered storms and economic downturns, the blow delivered by Hurricane Ike in September of 2008 has left the Galveston historic commercial district fighting to survive.

On September 13, 2008, Galveston Island took a direct hit from Hurricane Ike, and the downtown commercial district was flooded with 10–13 feet of a noxious mix of salt water, oil and debris. When the water receded after two days, the full impact could be seen: destroyed interiors, ruined mechanical systems and the devastation of Galveston’s trademark decorative cast-iron embellishments. In addition, Hurricane Ike’s wrath has created structural deficiencies, posing a threat to the integrity of many of the district’s buildings.

When it was founded in the 1830s, Galveston was little more than a barrier island with a natural harbor and a barren landscape. Within decades, the city’s founders had created a major port, employing architectural cast iron – both structural and ornamental – as the preferred building material. More than 44% of the buildings in the Strand/Mechanic district have cast-iron storefronts, along with buildings along Market and Post Office streets, and many more have brick fronts with cast-iron details. The cast iron storefronts took the full force of Hurricane Ike’s assault, and today, the 1859 Hendley Buildings, once used as a Civil War lookout and, also, reportedly where the first shot of the Battle of Galveston was fired, are suffering from severe structural problems and demolition by neglect.

For more than three decades, the Galveston Historical Foundation has championed economic revitalization in the historic district, and each year it holds a well-attended holiday festival, Dickens on the Strand. Even before Hurricane Ike, however, downtown Galveston was experiencing an economic downturn that saw businesses leaving and buildings deteriorating due to neglect. In addition, many business owners had no flood insurance and have not reopened in the wake of the storm – and FEMA’s relief efforts have been slow to unfold. Compounding the already dire situation, the City of Galveston is facing a severe economic decline and has been unable to offer assistance with the revitalization of the historic commercial district.

The cast iron storefronts took the full force of Hurricane Ike’s assault in 2008 and today are suffering from severe structural problems and demolition by neglect.

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